Maine’s Outward Bound school celebrates 50 years of adventure

Posted June 20, 2014, at 6:28 a.m.

At the age of 16, Stephen Erikson has a checkered past. He’s never gotten along well with other kids, he said. And about a year ago, his life was put on hold for back surgery for scoliosis. To him, the future looked woefully uncertain.

But this spring, on a 30-foot sailboat, everything changed.

Stephen traveled from his home in Nederland, Colorado, to learn the art of sailing (and much more) at Maine’s Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer .

Stephen’s grandmother put her three children through Outward Bound, he said, and now she’s putting her grandkids through it.

“I feel like I’ve grown up more,” said Stephen after nine days of sailing. “I’ve never had people come really close in my life, but now it feels like I have a lot of family from all different parts of the U.S.”

His success story is one that has been experienced thousands of times by Outward Bound campers over the past half century.

In the teen sailing program, Stephen boarded an open sailboat with nine other students and two instructors. The small vessel served as their home and classroom for 14 days as they sailed the Gulf of Maine, to places such as Monhegan Island and Vinalhaven.

Each day, they took turns performing different roles, from cook to navigator. When the wind didn’t blow, they pulled oars. When it rained, they donned yellow rain gear. And to calculate their speed, they tossed banana peels overboard and timed the floating fruit from bow to stern.

“I think the most important thing that these courses do for our students is empower them,” said Diane Sternberg, lead sailing instructor of the expedition.

“Because it’s such a small space, they recognize that everything they do has a direct impact on everybody else and on the experience,” she said. “So it sort of makes people rise to the occasion and be their best self.”

At night, the crew cocooned the boat with a tarp, rolled out the oars to fill the space between the rowing thwarts, and slept side by side.

“Part of what the students do is they learn from their successes and their failures, and what we can do as an organization is the same,” Sternberg said. “Fifty years is enough time to recognize what works really well and keep on doing it, and recognize what’s not working so well and being flexible enough to change.”

Outward Bound — named after the nautical term for a ship’s departure from harbor — is an international organization that provides outdoor education programs for youth and adults. Established in 1941, in the midst of World War II, the organization provided young sailors with the experience and skills necessary to survive at sea. Its co-founder, German educator Kurt Hahn, believed education should encompass both the intellect and character of a person.

Today, Outward Bound serves 70,000 students annually.

Maine’s Hurricane Island Outward Bound School was established in 1946 by Peter O. Willauer, an experienced sailor with a love for Maine’s rocky coastline. Instructors and students at the school affectionately refer to him as “POW.”

“I wanted to work with a variety of students from all walks of life,” Willauer said in a recent interview. “A boat is an ideal vehicle for working with all kinds of people of all ages. It’s a small community and everything’s real, everybody has got to do everything — including get along together.”

Now 79 years old, Willauer will be honored at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School’s 50th Anniversary Bash on Aug. 22 at Point Lookout in Northport.

Attending the event as honorary chairs will be former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell; U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree; renowned Maine artist Jamie Wyeth; and Pheobe Miner and Joshua Miner IV, the widow and son of the man who brought Outward Bound to the U.S. in 1961, Joshua Miner, III.

“The educational philosophy of how we taught in 1964, versus how we teach in 2014, really hasn’t changed a whole lot,” said Eric Denny, executive director of the school. “That’s one of the magical things about Outward Bound — it stood the test of time.”

“It’s really about using the adventure of the outdoors for personal growth — learning and transforming yourself,” said Dagny St. John, 72, of Woolwich, who was one of the first female instructors for Hurricane Island Outward Bound when the school went co-ed in the early 70s. Like many former instructors, St. John is still involved with the school, where she met her husband, Peter.

“He came into the mess hall on Hurricane Island,” she said, “and his line was something like, ‘Dagny, of ‘Atlas Shrugged’?’ I don’t know if I was so taken at the time, but we got to know each other that summer, and two years later, we were married.”

From 1964 to 2005, the school was headquartered on Hurricane Island, 12 miles off the coast of Rockland. But nine years ago, the school moved off the privately-owned island due to the increasing cost of running the base on the island and the inability to reach a longterm lease agreement with the island owner.

The island is now home to the Hurricane Island Foundation, a science-based education center. Also founded by Peter Willauer, the foundation is completely independent of Outward Bound and has an focus on sustainability, leadership and scientific research.

“This is sort of an issue for us because people do confuse us all the time,” said Barney Hallowell, executive director of Hurricane Island Foundation.

Today, the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School is headquartered in Camden. The sea program base is on Wheeler Bay in St. George; the mountain program base is in Newry; and the school holds an easement on the privately-owned Burnt Island in Muscongus Bay.

“At one point, the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School — based in little old Midcoast Maine — was the largest Outward Bound school in the entire world,” Denny said.

That’s no longer the case, but the school continues to offer a variety of courses in sailing, rock climbing, backpacking, skiing, dog sledding and paddling to teens and adults. And in addition to Maine, they run programs out of bases in Florida, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

Annually, the school offers about $600,000 in scholarships to make their courses available inner city students, veterans, and people in need of financial aid.

“In the last 15 or 20 years, we’ve consciously remained close to our core, which is taking students out into wilderness environments on extended expeditions, and trying to be the best that we can be as opposed to the biggest,” Denny said.

On June 14, Stephen and his fellow sailors emerged from the forest on Burnt Island after completing a solo challenge, an Outward Bound tradition in which students spend time alone in the wilderness to rest and reflect.

For two nights, they remained at individual tent sites, alone with their thoughts. Open to the elements and with meager supplies, many students found this to be the most difficult challenge of the 14-day course.

“I thought it would be kind of a breeze, just being by myself and lying around outside. But it raining the entirety of it definitely changed things,” said Jack Rogers, 16, of Cincinnati, Ohio. “But … I’m kind of glad that it did because — it’s kind of cliche for me to say this — but it definitely led to some transformative thoughts that hopefully I can take back to the real world.”

“I feel like every human being needs the chance to sit back — without their phone, without any technology,” said Hannah Sheridan, 17, of Edmond, Oklahoma, who last year attended a month-long course on canoeing and backpacking in Alabama through Outward Bound’s intercept program for struggling youth.

“It’s for kids who need a change in their lives,” said Hannah, who became one of Stephen’s closest friends during their Maine sailing adventure. “Like something drastic needs to happen so they can have a good life, I guess … And so I went there, and honestly, it changed my life.”

After two nights alone in the woods, the students — many of whom resorted to talking to themselves to fend off loneliness — were eager to reunite and board their little sailboat.

“I think we became a tight family in just a couple days because we have to help each other out,” Stephen said with a shrug. “We take care of each other on the boat.”

Stephen had only been on the ocean two times before Outward Bound, but he chose the sailing course because he figured it would be easy enough on his back, which is now supported by two metal rods.

“A couple days ago I got a pinched nerve [in my back], and it hurt that I couldn’t sail or row,” he said. “It sucked because it made me feel like I was kind of worthless when I couldn’t do anything to help out my team, my family, get to where we needed to go.”

After a trail run and dip in the ocean, the students said farewell to picturesque Burnt Island. Aboard pulling boat #6 — the sixth wooden sailboat constructed for Outward Bound in the 60s — they bailed out about a foot of rainwater and organized their gear in preparation for their final challenge: sailing to the sea school’s base camp on Wheeler Bay without help from the instructors, who would be on board for safety reasons only.

And after two days on dry land, Stephen had overcome his back pain and was pulling an oar alongside his new family.

“Ten days ago, they didn’t know how to sail,” Sternberg said. “They’re going to sail this boat back to base and just be on top of the world.

For information on Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, visit www.hiobs.org. To learn more about Outward Bound, visit www.outwardbound.org.